Obstacles To Trump’s Syria Plan Mount As Kurds Shelled, Israel Pushes Back

Donald Trump’s Syria plan is going “great”, in case you haven’t noticed.

And by “great”, I mean it cost him his Defense Secretary last month (Mattis was probably looking for an excuse to resign and Trump gave it to him), garnered cat calls from some conservatives and allies and, most foreboding of all, put him squarely in the pocket of Turkish President (and man who is the living embodiment of the word “incorrigible”)  Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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What The U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Syria Really Means

Regular readers know we are Erdogan “fans”, where “fans” certainly does not mean we honestly support his autocratic, iron-fisted rule (and everything that comes with it from imprisoning journalists to commandeering monetary policy to violently suppressing any and all vestiges of dissent). Rather, we’re “fans” because – and I don’t know how else to put this – he’s hilarious, in the same kind of way Wile E. Coyote or, say, Tom (from Tom And Jerry) is hilarious.

A case in point was January 8 when John Bolton, while en route to Ankara, decided it would be a good idea to say the following while speaking in Jerusalem:

We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum, so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.

That is of course an allusion to the YPG (the Kurdish fighters with whom the US has fought over the course of the complex anti-ISIS campaign). This is the main point of contention between Washington and Ankara in Syria. Erdogan draws no distinction between the YPG and the PKK, with the latter being second only to Fethullah Gulen on the (long) list of people Erdogan hates. It is, was and always will be the case, that Erdogan’s ultimate goal in convincing the US to pull troops from Syria is to ensure there are no US spec ops embedded with the YPG so that he can proceed to massacre them without risking a scenario where he accidentally kills a SEAL (or something) and finds himself having to answer to the Pentagon.

This is no secret. Everyone knows it, including mainstream media outlets, which is why everyone immediately asked the obvious question(s) when Trump decided to pull troops from Syria: Are you placating Erdogan to ensure he doesn’t release any more evidence implicating Crown Prince Mohammed in the Khashoggi murder and if so, how can you be sure that he (Erdogan) isn’t going to start shelling the Kurds as soon as US troops are no longer in the firing line?

Bolton’s comments (above) were an effort to address those questions, and just as soon as they crossed the wires it was clear to anyone who knows anything about Erdogan that he would feign being furious on the way to embarrassing John. Sure enough, he actually let Bolton get all the way to Ankara, and then refused to meet with him. “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel”, Erdogan told Parliament. Bolton, Erdogan said, had made a “grave” mistake.

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It Is ‘Impossible’ For Turkey’s Erdogan To ‘Swallow’ John Bolton’s ‘Grave Mistake’, Ok?!

Well, predictably, Erdogan is shelling some folks again. Here’s the pro-government Daily Sabah to Erdo-‘splain:

[The] Turkish army on Sunday hit targets of PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) terrorist group in northern Syria on Sunday.

A large number of terrorists were “neutralized” after Turkish howitzers based in Operation Euphrates Shield area hit terror targets in Azaz and Marea districts, local sources said on condition of anonymity due to security reasons.

At least 20 howitzer rounds were fired on YPG/PKK targets.

Separately, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) member was killed, and three others injured in a clash with YPG/PKK terror group on Saturday night.

The Turkish military also struck terror targets in Syria’s Tal Rifat over the past three days.


The YPG/PKK occupied Tal Rifat in 2016 in hopes of linking Afrin, a city in northwestern Syria, to areas under its control east of the Euphrates River, thus establishing a zone of influence along Syria’s border with Turkey.

That last bit ] is “true” in the sense that the Kurds have sought, over the course of the conflict, to effectively consolidate control/influence in northern Syria, but the characterization of that effort as a PKK-linked scheme aimed solely at menacing Turkey is specious at best and wholly dubious at worst.

Note how there isn’t even a passing attempt in the excerpted passages above to distinguish between the PKK and the YPG, with the latter being described simply as a “terrorist group”. If you aren’t well-versed in the Syria conflict, we would again remind you that this is the exact same group (i.e., literally the same people) that the US fights with. Anadolu ran the same story on Sunday.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Rather, it’s a pattern and it underlines why the idea of a “safe zone” guaranteed by Erdogan following a US exit is absurd. Complicating this whole thing immeasurably are longstanding questions about exactly who it is that Erdogan actually supports in Syria. Separating Russian propaganda from fact became virtually impossible in late 2015 (when the Turks shot down a Russian warplane), but suffice to say figuring out who Erdogan has aided and abetted in Syria over the course of the conflict is well nigh impossible.

If you’re wondering whether the Kurds will simply turn to Assad for protection once the US is gone, the answer is “yes.” Here’s Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Kurdish group, quoted by Bloomberg:

It isn’t comfortable for us but what is the other option? If we were cornered into choosing between a Turkish militia attacking our areas [and reaching an accord with President Bashar al-Assad] we would go with the regime.

Meanwhile, Al-Tanf has become a sticking point. The base, in southeast Syria, will be hard for Trump to abandon without irritating Israel. Bloomberg has a longer piece on this published Friday evening (which you should read), but the overarching point is simple: if Al-Tanf is abandoned, it will be even easier than it already is for Iran to resupply Hezbollah.

The overarching question, then, is how exactly the troop withdrawal is going to work. Pulling forces out of the north risks a scenario where Erdogan gets even more ambitious in his anti-YPG campaign and leaving Al-Tanf makes parts of the south a super-highway for Iran. Additionally (and Bloomberg highlights this in their piece), it’s not entirely clear whether it’s feasible to keep Al-Tanf open indefinitely if that means maintaining just a handful of troops there. That might work for another year (give or take), but Assad is clearly back in control and it’s just a matter of time before the last vestiges of resistance are wiped out in the northwest. It seems extraordinarily ill-advised to leave a couple of hundred US troops marooned in Al-Tanf with no backup in a hostile country that is openly backed by Tehran.

In any event, this is obviously a disaster waiting to happen. Not to sound callous, but the casualties the US incurred in Manbij earlier this month are probably the least of Trump’s worries here. That was a suicide bomber (ISIS took credit, but who knows if that’s even reliable – they have a habit of taking credit for attacks even when they weren’t responsible). The real worry in Syria is that Trump ends up blamed for Erdogan murdering Kurds and/or ends up at odds with Israel over an abandonment of Al-Tanf, which the Israelis would doubtlessly suggest undermines Trump’s express goal of curbing Iranian influence.


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One thought on “Obstacles To Trump’s Syria Plan Mount As Kurds Shelled, Israel Pushes Back

  1. The only beneficiaries of Trumps ‘pull out’ strategy are America’s great ‘friends,’ Russia, Iran/Hezbolla, Syria and Turkey. Pity the poor Kurds (and democratic forces) who thought they had an Ally in America.

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